The reputation of Highway 50: “It’s totally empty. There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it.” (All photos: Bill Fink)
The Concept: Drive the length of “America’s Loneliest Road” to see just how lonely it is, both for a visitor and the locals.
The Route: 347 miles along Highway 50 straight through the middle of Nevada from Fernley to Baker. The negative: a little boring to stay on a single road. The positive: hard to get lost.
The Car: 2012 Toyota Prius. A sensible choice with fine mileage and capable of triple-digit speeds, but which looks a little out of place at a roadhouse filled with Harleys and rusty pickup trucks.
The Loneliness Scale: “10” for voices-in-the-head desert-mirage talking-to-cactus loneliness. “1” for a group hugging, kumbaya-singing, we-are-all-one Western hoedown.
Why so Lonely? In 1986, Life Magazine did a story on Highway 50, declaring it to be “America’s Loneliest Road,” The magazine quoted a local AAA motor rep as saying “”It’s totally empty. There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”
Survival Skills: I brought three water bottles and a couple apples. Knowing I’d be out of cell-phone range I actually took a paper map and a hard-copy travel brochure with me. This is the part of the country where even the most optimistic wireless coverage maps shows as a big white blotch, sort of the modern equivalent of Darkest Africa.
Checking out some ropin’ in Fernley.
The Launch—Fernley: My trip begins near the city of Fernley, at the sun-blasted corner of I-80 and Hwy 50. Next to the corner is a parking lot packed with trailers, camper vans, people, horses, and cattle. Despite having traveled .1 miles on my journey, it seems like something worth investigating. Turns out I’ve stumbled onto an event in the National Roping Tour. Or as I discover, it is always pronounced: “Ropin’”
As I take some photos, a cowboy leans in to say howdy. Wes Scolari, originally from Fallon (my next stop on the highway), has driven with his horse down from Idaho to join the semi-pro competition. I ask him if he’s lonely. He finds this pretty funny. “Hell, me and these guys,” he gestures to the 80+ hatted fellows on horseback around us, “we’ve been around each other for who knows how many years.”
The event organizer, Ty Yost, tells me they expect over 500 participants and an equal number of spectators at the three-day event. “People come from all over, make a week of it, have some parties. I mean, not like Mardi Gras or nothin’ like that, just some good ol’ barbecues.”
Loneliness Rating: 2. Just short of a desert Mardi Gras.
Air, Water, and Sand: Fallon: The city of Fallon is home of the TOPGUN Naval Air Station, and curiously a wetlands bird sanctuary. I see neither people nor birds at the marshy park, but do spot some contrails high in the sky above me. Outside of town I stop at the appropriately named Sand Mountain, which looks like a giant anthill piled in the middle of the Nevada countryside.
I drive to the base of the dunes to find a couple dozen people camped around their RVs like a wagon train of old. The area is a prime ATV playground, with bunches of the buzzing four-wheeled machines cruising the hills. It’s strictly a bring-your-own-vehicle sort of place, and I don’t have one. But I chat up a family at their compound, and after they establish I’m not some sort of low-down-no-good-environmentalist, they offer me a ride and we tear up, over, and down the dunes.
Loneliness Rating: 3. A beach party in central Nevada
The Place to Be: Middlegate Station: As the sign by the door of the 150-year-old roadhouse says, I am officially in the Middle of Nowhere. Empty roads in three directions surround this small oasis of a restaurant/bar/motel. The only patrons in the bar in the middle of the day are a couple of wiry, bearded guys who look like extras from The Grapes of Wrath. One is muttering at a can of peaches.
The bartender, Misty, is the niece of the owner, and originally from Tennessee. “I miss the trees,” she says. But is she lonely? “Oh, no, not here!” I look around the nearly empty bar. She laughs and says, “Just wait, we have 50 or 60 bikers coming in tonight for a big steak cook-out. We get miners, cowboys, military, tourists, everyone comes here. A lot of nights it’s standing-room only.”
On cue, two dusty guys walk through the door. One is wearing camouflage fatigues, carrying a sidearm, and has a full head of white hair and a jolly expression, looking like Santa Claus had joined a militia. He orders a beer and a shot of Jack Daniels, and invites me to join him for a drink. I politely decline. The road awaits.
Loneliness Rating: 5+/- depending on the time of day
A lonely stretch of the Lonely Road.
Pony Express Ruins, near Cold Springs:
Highway 50 traces much of the route of the old Pony Express trail, the route that teams of riders used to get the mail across the country in 1860. Remote outposts like the one near Cold Springs provided shelter, a change of horses, and some food and drink. Now only a few stones of the foundation of the building remain near the roadside.
Loneliness Rating: 10. Rocks, dirt, and the weight of time
Spencer Hot Springs, near Austin: A friendly guy at the chamber of commerce gives me lonely-road type directions to find the natural hot springs outside of Austin: “Turn right at the old billboard by the bottom of the hill, then left at the dirt road, pass the power lines, look for a smaller dirt road, then drive around some and you’ll find them.” I bump along dusty paths until I spot a campervan parked on a rise. Soaking in a large metal tub nearby is a tanned-to-leather naked man by the name of Bo Dancer. His dog Playa trots up to me and gnaws my arm in a friendly way. Mr. Dancer, recently of Oaxaca Mexico, has been “decompressing for about three weeks” at the hot springs. Does he feel lonely? “Oh, it can be, sometimes,” he admits, “But that camper over there, it has wireless access!”
A thankfully partial shot of Bo Dancer in the hot tub.
Loneliness Rating: 7. And that’s not really a bad thing, when you need to decompress.
Geographic Center of Nevada: My map shows I’m passing pretty close to the geographic center of Nevada. I see a tumbleweed roll in front of me, and that’s pretty much the only sign of life for a couple hours.
Loneliness Rating: 10. Especially along a hallucinatory 80-mile straightaway.
The Hotel Nevada: a great place for one-on-one blackjack.
Making Connections: Ely
The last real town before the Utah border, Ely is a former mining boomtown turned into a recreational rest stop for cross-country drivers. At the historic Hotel Nevada, it’s just me and the local dealer playing blackjack on a Friday night. “Lonely? Not me,” she says to my question, “It’s hard to be lonely when you’re related to most of the town.”
The still-operational Nevada Northern Railway.
The next morning I visit the fascinating working museum of the Nevada Northern Railway, where wide-eyed little boys gape at massive, still-functional steam engines dating from 1909. My tour guide tells me “railroads were the Internet of the early 20th century, connecting folks around the country.” Ely’s nearby Renaissance Village is also a place to make a connection—this one through time as the meticulously restored buildings show what life was like there in the 1910s.
Loneliness Rating: 4. The town is a fun place to connect with others (and the past) before hitting the nearby wilderness
This fox had plenty to say.
Great Basin National Park, near Baker: The oldest living things on earth, the Bristlecone Pine trees have a life span of over 4,000 years. You’d think that would be the ultimate in loneliness, but there’s a big grove of them up at 10,000 feet in the park, where I imagine they’ve been having conversations between each other that have lasted eons. But for me, it’s completely silent along the trail, not another hiker or a bird chirping disturbs the lonely peak. On my way down the road, a little kit fox pops out from the trees to bark at me, reminding me the forest is still full of life.
Loneliness Rating: 8. If only the trees could speak.
Parades, goats, and pie in Baker.
Baker: The End of the Road: At the end of the road, there’s nothing to do but turn around and return home to San Francisco. Viewed from the hills, Highway 50 cutting through the Great Basin desert looks like a jagged line through a desolate moonscape. But going back to the highway, I drive into the village of Baker, where a police car has blocked off the road. “Founder’s Day Parade,” he says, “Big celebration.” Kids walk pulling goats on leashes, local politicians glad-hand spectators, a fire engine toots, and I’m invited to stick around for some pie.
Turns out, the more isolated the setting, the friendlier people become. I’ve felt far more lonely on the crowded streets of Manhattan than I did on this backroad tour. I’ll need to drive this “lonely road” again just to accept all the hospitable offers I received.
Overall Loneliness Rating: 4. For every open road there is an open invitation